Jen McMullen ’98, M.S. ’00, never imagined she would one day play a vital role in the Streator community as a small business owner. McMullen holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in speech pathology from Illinois State University.
During her time at ISU, McMullen immersed herself in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Her core group of friends all shared the major and they all lived together. They regularly stayed up late studying and motivating each other to succeed.
McMullen’s time in the speech pathology department actually helped boost her entrepreneurial skills. “Graduate school did a lot for preparing me for owning my own business because it’s just a lot of self-motivation and drive to get things done. Just the hard work was probably as important as anything else,” she said. “It applies; whether you’re talking about school or owning a business.”
McMullen started her own business on March 31, 2018. She and her husband, Adam McMullen, bought a building and renovated it in downtown Streator, their hometown. McMullen opened Main Street Market where she serves as the head chef of the café, More on Main, located inside. Since the building’s grand opening in 2018, it has grown and expanded. It originally started with three women including McMullen in the café, and two other small businesses in the building. In just three years, the café has grown by 50% and now employs 15 people. Similarly, the Main Street Market building has expanded from one to three floors and two to eight small businesses. These businesses include a kitchen store, candy shop, clothing stores, and more.
McMullen worried that her business would not make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. They had to shut down for a total of six weeks. Customers were scared to leave their homes. However, More on Main reopened on May 1, 2020, with a carry-out option, then shifted to delivery. With time, the dining room reopened. They eased back into service and McMullen acknowledged how good the community was to More on Main.
Located across the hall from More on Main, Tara Dean ’95, ’99 is the small business owner of Charlie Lou’s Boutique. Dean received a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a bachelor’s degree in education from Illinois State.
Dean worked as an educator for 12 years before she realized she wanted to make a change. “The more I researched, I started getting excited about bringing a boutique to our town. The excitement wasn’t going away, I kept researching it more, and decided to take the leap,” Dean said.
Charlie Lou’s Boutique opened its doors on November 21, 2020. Despite opening during the pandemic, Dean received a surplus of support from the Streator community. People who were nervous to go into a mall felt more at ease venturing to a small town’s local shop. In a way, being a small, local business became an advantage.
Dean’s experience in business and education prepared her to launch and manage the boutique. In her ISU marketing courses, one lesson that stood out to her was how to learn different ways to get people excited about goods and services. In her education courses, she learned how to talk and listen to others, which contributes to her successful customer relations.
On the third floor of Main Street Market, Kelli Bacon ’04 has applied similar lessons to her small business Legend’s Apparel Company, a men’s clothing store. Bacon earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising and design from Illinois State.
Bacon spent much of her time in the campus sewing labs. ISU allowed her to explore the many paths of the industry, and she loved the professors and the major itself. When opening her store, she recalled revisiting information she was taught in her fashion major courses.
Bacon first put her entrepreneurship skills to the test in 2015 when she started a small t-shirt business for her son and his baseball team while simultaneously teaching. When she heard of a vacant space at Main Street Market, she made the jump to launch her own brick-and-mortar business. “Basically, it was a dare,” said Bacon. “My son said, ‘You won’t do it, there’s no way.’ And so, I did it. And during COVID!”
Legend’s Apparel Company opened on May 5, 2021. Like other retailers, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed orders from vendors, preventing Bacon from selling certain products to customers. For Bacon, starting up her business was a learning experience but fun at the same time.
Starting off, business was slow. But in December 2021, the rush of the holiday season and support from the town led to an 80% growth in sales at Legends Apparel Company.
In addition to the support that the Streator community has given Bacon’s Legend’s Apparel Co., Dean’s Charlie Lou’s Boutique, and McMullen’s More on Main business, there is a strong support system within the walls of Main Street Market.
Main Street Market currently houses eight small businesses, all of which are owned and managed by women. Three of which are owned and managed by ISU alumnae.
These three women, McMullen, Dean, and Bacon, graduated from ISU and were familiar with each other prior to working together. But through their similar experiences and goals, they have come together to get to know each other more, build each other up, and celebrate each other’s successes.
For Bacon, Main Street Market is a supportive, collaborative, and empowering place to work. “I wouldn’t want to start my business anywhere else,” said Bacon.
In agreement, McMullen said, “I’m surrounded by this group of women where we all have the same goal. I feel like my time at ISU wasn’t any different. You don’t have to do everything by yourself, and it’s way easier when you don’t. I had a core group at ISU, and I have a core group now. And that is just so important.”
With final reflection on education and entrepreneurship, Dean said, “I think education is important and you don’t always know where it might lead you. Here I am so many years later using both the degrees I got from ISU for something that I never thought I would do. It was never a dream of mine to own my own business so it has also taught me that your goals and what you think you might do in life can change and that’s okay. You don’t necessarily have to do what you think you want to do for the rest of your life.”